Mike Snider / USA Today
The oft-forgotten TV antenna could help lessen your dependence on pay TV.
In addition to making their programming available on cable, fiber and satellite TV systems, more than 1,780 stations are transmitting digital TV channels that can be picked up in many cases by small indoor TV antennas.
Antennas are catching on as many consumers wean themselves off of pay-TV services use them to get local channels. Homes with an antenna rose from 20 million in 2012 to 21.5 million in 2013, an increase of 7%, according to tech research firm Strategy Analytics.
Use of antennas is expected to continue "to rise at a decent pace," says Eric Smith, an analyst with the firm. That's because Net TV services such as Netflix and Hulu, delivered via smart TV and devices and set-top boxes such as Apple TV and Roku — and now Amazon Fire TV — are not "the type of things you can rely on exclusively," Smith says. "I think it's more of a supplement to over-the-air broadcasts," he says.
Reader Clark Davis reminded me of the importance of antennas in an e-mail after reading my previous Cutting the Cord column titled Few part with pay TV but some spurn it. He noted that most residents, particularly those in major markets, can get free channels with an antenna — sometimes channels not available on pay-TV systems.
And, of course, you would get all the major network programs, such as Scandal on ABC, The Good Wife (CBS), New Girl (Fox), The Blacklist (NBC) and Downton Abbey (PBS), not to mention local news and national sports broadcasts, including NBC Sunday Night Football.
"Couple this with all the free content on Apple TV and its access to Netflix, and you have quite a bit of incentive," said Davis, who splits his time between Pontiac, Mich., and Deerfield Beach, Fla.
I decided to try one myself in my home in the Washington, D.C., area. First I connected an indoor antenna to a living room TV in the middle of the townhouse. The built-in TV tuner scanned the airwaves and found more than a dozen channels, including local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates' main channels and some sub-channels (a digital TV channel has enough room to include two or three additional channels, some in high-def and some standard definition).
However, as I watched they were often unstable, so I disconnected the antenna and headed to the upstairs bedroom and connected it to the TV in that room. This time, I attached the flat antenna to a window, as suggested by maker Winegard.
As a result, I picked up even more channels — about 40 — including three different PBS channels and some Baltimore affiliates. And more important, these channels were robust and did not break up.
"Pay TV is great, but with an antenna many people can get up to 50 channels," says Grant Whipple, consumer electronics product manager at Winegard, which loaned me the FlatWave Amped antenna (about $70). Its antennas start at about $30.
The company, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, has seen sales rise more than eight-fold since 2010, he says. "People realized what they could get and the quality. A digital antenna and a streaming service is just really powerful," Whipple said. "It's like fashion. What was old is new again."
Wondering whether an over-the-air antenna is for you? Venture to dtv.gov/maps and you can plug your ZIP code in to see what channels are in your range.
Remember, those results are based on an outdoor antenna mounted 30 feet above the ground. With an indoor antenna, try to get the best exposure toward the local TV signal towers for the best chance at solid reception.
If you can get good signals, the price is certainly right.